Thursday, 17 September 2020

The poisoned parson & the travelling corpse; more tales of exhumation at Highgate Cemetery

Pity the poor gravedigger; digging graves in Victorian cemeteries was dirty and dangerous work. With no mechanical aids to assist, a gravedigger would have had to rely on mattock, shovel and brute strength to remove three and a half tons of earth to create the six-foot-deep trench required by a standard coffin. If it was difficult burying the dead it would have been even harder digging them up again when the earth was loose and more liable to slippage and the coffin and its contents would have started to decompose. Getting a coffin into a grave merely requires it to be lowered in on ropes. Getting it out again means some poor soul had to risk serious injury or inadvertent premature burial by descending into the newly opened grave and manhandling the coffin into a position to run the ropes underneath it to allow it to be hoisted out. And once they had done all that and the police, the lawyers, and the medical men had finished their grisly inspections, they were expected to rebury the corpse all over again. Exhumations would not have been the highlight of the job.  

Not all exhumed bodies were reburied in the same cemetery of course, some would have been taken elsewhere to be buried. In October 1890 the Canterbury Journal, Kentish Times and Farmers' Gazette reported on the case of a restless widow who could not bear to be too far away from her deceased husband, a former clergyman;

A SINGULAR STORY. A BODY THRICE EXHUMED AND FOUR TIMES INTERRED. A widow lady named Jcnes last week took her departure from Canterbury accompanied by the remains of her husband, who expired two years ago. Mr. Jones, who, we believe, was a clergyman, died at Portsmouth, where his body was duly buried. Subsequently his widow removed to Highgate, and having obtained the authority of the Home Secretary her husband’s body was exhumed and re-interred in Cemetery, having been previously enclosed in a second coffin. About eighteen months ago Mrs. Jones came to reside in apartments in Canterbury, and again she had her husband’s remains exhumed, the corpse being brought to this city and buried in the new Cemetery at St. Thomas’s Hill, the ceremony being conducted by the Rev. P. W. Loosemore. Before re-interment another coffin was made in which the other two were placed. Once more Mrs. Jones determined to shift her place of residence, and again she obtained the permission of the Home Secretary to exhume her husband’s remains. Mr. Wiltshier, of Canterbury, was employed to make another coffin and convey the corpse to Liverpool, whither the lady has now gone to reside. Her husband’s body has thus been re-interred for the fourth time. The expense incurred on each occasion of the exhumation and re-interment is stated to have been about £30. A marble cross was erected over the grave of Mr. Jones in Canterbury cemetery with the inscription engraved thereon “rests from his labours.” A more remarkable case than this was probably never heard of.

Ensconced within four separate coffins Mr Jones would have resembled a Russian doll by the time of his final burial.  Mrs Jones would have found it much more convenient to travel with her dead husband accommodated in a cinerary urn but cremation was a novel and rather radical method of disposing of the dead at the time. The first crematorium in the UK had been founded in Woking in 1878 with the first cremation, of a horse (they were just practicing), on 17 March 1879. Legal objections prevented further cremations taking place until 1884 and so Mrs Jones was left with little choice but to continually exhume her husband if she wished to carry on visiting him regularly whilst peregrinating around England. 

The Reverend Henry Walker of 1 Fitzroy Square was a retired clergyman who died at home om 10 March 1844 and was buried in the recently opened new cemetery at Highgate. Within a few days of being buried his eldest daughter, Jane Power, and her husband Edward who was a barrister, complained to the authorities that the “deceased had been found dead in his chair, and that he might have come to his death from an over-dose of pills of morphia, either administered by his own hand or that of someone else.” They suspected foul play and on Edward Power’s insistence the recently buried clergyman was exhumed and an inquest held into his death. Chairing the inquest was the hyperactive Thomas Wakley, who in addition to his duties as the West Middlesex coroner was also editor of The Lancet and the Member of Parliament for Finsbury. The Inquest was held in the Gatehouse Tavern on Highgate Hill just a short walk from the cemetery which is where the coroner and the jury started the day by viewing the exhumed body, still in its lead coffin, in the catacombs. After seeing Rev. Walkers corpse, the party returned to the Gatehouse and the inquest proper began.  Thomas Wakley told the jury that it been his ‘painful duty’ to request Rev. Walker’s disinterment because “a member of the family had demanded that an inquest should be held. The law rendered it imperative on the Coroner in whose jurisdiction the body should be, when such a demand was made to hold an inquest, and however much he might regret it in the present instance, he was compelled to hold that inquiry.” Jane Walker, the clergyman’s widow was called to give evidence first. She told the packed inquest that “she found him dead, or, as she thought at first, fainting, in his sitting room, on the 10th of March, about nine in the morning. He was seated in his chair, partly undressed.” She had called for help and the servants had gone to fetch the vicar’s surgeon from his house in Charlotte Street, just a short walk away from the Square. After a short examination the surgeon pronounced his patient dead. A distraught Mrs Walker told the inquest “he took no opiates that l am aware of, nor any other medicine but that which was prescribed for him. He had never made any attempt on his life. He was too religious and good a man. I solemnly believe that he died a natural death.” Next to give evidence was Mary, another of the vicar’s daughters. She told the inquest that she had given her father his two morphia pills at 8pm the previous evening. According to the Morning Post of Friday 31 March 1848 the Edward Power then barraged the coroner with questions to be put to his sister-in-law; 

Mr. Power here submitted a number of questions to the Coroner to be asked of this witness, to which she replied with great bitterness — My father was never under any restraint during my recollection. I never supposed he was not of sound mind. I never heard any one breathe anything of the sort except that man (pointing to Mr. Power). He is the libeller. M. Power said the restraint being denied, he begged to hand in a letter, which, if the witness admitted it as her father's handwriting, he demanded should be read to the Jury. The witness having done so, the letter, which was addressed to his eldest daughter, Mrs. Power, was read. It was dated the 8th of February, 1848, and addressed "Mrs. Jane Power, to the care of Mr. Tims, 3, Charlotte-street, to be called for." The following is the extract referring to the restraint: —

"My dear Jane — Soon after we parted yesterday it poured in such torrents that I became quite nervous on your account, as well as for the dear little girl, fearing both might take cold by exposing yourselves to it. I shall be glad to hear from you to-morrow that you may both have escaped such danger; but I must beg of you to direct your letter to Mr. Tims, 3, Charlotte-street, Fitzroy-square, till called for, and I will give : Mr. Tims instructions on that score; for your handwriting (is known by the whole family, and by the Seymours. It might very possibly involve me in dispute, which I, in my I present nervous state wish to avoid." The remainder of the letter was upon family, matters, and was signed — "Yours very affectionately, " H. Walker."

When Jane Power was called to the witness stand she told the inquest that she had last seen her father on 06 March when he had visited her at home in Pimlico; “In answer to questions put by the Coroner, at the suggestion of Mr. Power, The witness said deceased told her he was much worried at home, and was very uncomfortable. He expressed a wish to go abroad again, and on her remarking that he was too weak, deceased replied that he could pay for a nurse, who would treat him quite as well as he had been treated at home; and that he could be buried cheaper abroad. The witness also complained that she and her husband had been refused to attend the funeral.” There was clearly an ongoing family feud between Jane and her husband and the rest of the family. The poor Rev. Walker seems to have felt stuck in the middle and no doubt the family squabbles didn’t help improve his ailing health. Mr Wakley was no doubt exasperated by Edward Powers’ continual interventions in the inquest, trying to inflate every minor discrepancy in the testimony into a cause for grave doubt about how his father-in-law had died. And what were the Powers actually alleging?  Were they seriously trying to imply that the rest of the family had conspired to murder the Reverend? Or that he had taken his own life? Edward Powers seemed to veer between these two possibilities without coming to a clear accusation. Eventually Mr Wakley cut to the chase by calling the very eminent Dr. Richard Quain of Harley Street (great grandfather of Ian Fleming and author of Quain’s Dictionary of Medicine) to the stand. Dr Quain had been asked to carry out the post mortem on the Rev. Walker’s exhumed body. He told the inquest that he had found “considerable disease in the kidneys and urinary passages. The heart was very large, and the brain soft and much irritated by a point of bone pressing upon it. He had subjected the blood, some serum found in the pericardium, and the contents of the stomach, to the most perfect analysis, and the result was, that there was a considerable amount of urea in the blood, and the most minute traces of morphia in the stomach.” He told Mr Wakley that the cause of death was the state of the hear, kidneys and the urea in the blood. He was unequivocal in declaring the “death to have resulted from purely natural causes.” At this point the Coroner declared that there was no point in protracting the inquiry, that the jury should consider its verdict, which could of course only follow Dr Quain’s conclusion of death by natural causes. Edward Powers refused to bow to the inevitable however and leapt to his feet and demanded that Mr Wakley read to the jury once again the original grounds on which permission to hold the inquest had been granted. With gritted teeth the Coroner complied with the request reminding the jury that the allegation had been that the “deceased had been found dead in his chair, and that he might have come to his death from an over-dose of pills of morphia, either administered by his own hand or that of someone else.”  The reminder did Powers no good, the jury swiftly returned the only possible verdict of death by natural causes. We do not know if the breach between Jane and the rest of her family was ever mended but it seems unlikely.  

Thomas Wakley’s successor as Coroner for Central Middlesex was the equally energetic Dr Edwin Lankester who also a surgeon, the president of the British Association, an esteemed naturalist and friend of both Charles Darwin and T.H. Huxley. In September 1866 he was in charge of the inquest into the death of Richard Golding an 80-year-old retired engraver who despite being a man of some means had died in filthy lodgings in Stebbington Street, Somers Town the previous December and buried at Highgate on 2nd January. The new Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole, has signed an order for Golding’s exhumation due to allegations that his last medical attendant, a Dr James Part of Camden Road, may have unduly influenced his patient into making a will out in his favour and then poisoned him.  Golding had been a successful engraver when younger; Benjamin West had asked him to engrave his ‘Death of Nelson’, Robert Smirke his illustrations for Don Quixote and Gil-Blas and, amongst many others, a portrait of Princess Charlotte of Wales after the painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence. He made a lot of money during the years he was in demand but his career stalled when he was middle aged and he went into semi-retirement, living off his capital and passing his time angling. For over 20 years he lodged with a mother and her unmarried daughter, both called Frances Southgate at their house in Eve Terrace on Pancras Road. 15 months before his death he had suddenly decided to change his lodgings and moved into Mrs Todd’s rather run-down premises in Stebbington Street, Oakley Square, just five minutes away in Somers Town. The Southgates visited Golding in his new quarters and were present when he died during the Christmas holidays.

The inquest was held at the Angel Inn on Highgate High Street and after formally commencing the proceedings the Coroner’s first act was to send the jury off to Highgate Cemetery to view the body warning them that “this body had been interred since Christmas last.” When the green faced jurymen returned to the Angel the first witness called was William Booth, upholsterer and undertaker of Camden Road who confirmed that he had been the undertaker responsible for burying Golding (on the instructions of Dr. Part), that he had viewed the body exhumed at Highgate and he was certain that it was Richard Golding. Next up was Frances Southgate the daughter. She told the inquest that she had been to see Golding on Christmas day and that he was in bed with a cold. He refused to see a doctor and instead was determined to make a will. She went back to see him on Boxing day and found him worse. This time he agreed to see a doctor and sent her off to fetch Dr Part from Camden Road. According to The Express of 14 September 1866 Frances then said:

he came on Boxing-day about 3 o'clock. I was there when he came, and although I was not in the room, I heard him give Dr Part instructions for his will to give to a solicitor. He gave him the pictures, plate, and portfolios, and I heard him mention my own and my mother's names. He said, "Frances Southgate, widow, and Frances Southgate, jun." I did not hear what was said because of the noise of the children, but I heard him tell Dr Part that he had received great kindness from my mother. Dr Part said to me at the door, "Mr. Golding has left a legacy for you and your mother, and at your mother's death the whole will come to you." Dr Part promised to send a nurse, but none came. The deceased seemed better in the afternoon of Boxing-day, and the day after he seemed much better, and ate two rounds of toast. I think I was there the whole day. That afternoon Dr Part brought his solicitor and Captain Brooker, who was his son-in-law. He did not tell Mr. Golding that Captain Brooker was his son-in-law, but he called Mrs. Part "mother." I never heard the will read. I did not see Mr. Golding sign the will, but he told me all about it when they were gone. He laid hold of my hand and said, "I am glad I have made my will, Fanny. I have left your mother £700, and I have left you £700, and I have left Dr Part my pictures in the portfolios and £50. He is well paid. He has got my will, and is executor."  

When Frances went back to see Golding the following day, she found him in convulsions and sent for Dr Part who limited his treatment to a little sherry and water and a couple of pills. Golding died three hours later and Frances claimed Dr Part immediately removed a pocket book with £40 in bank notes in it and two silver watches. Golding had died in his trousers and much to the horror of Miss Southgate the doctor said he should be buried in them. Mrs Southgate the mother was also present at this point and when she objected the doctor told her that he was the executor and he could send Golding’s body for dissection if he wanted to. Mr Beard, the solicitor acting for Dr Part asked her about a bag of money she had tried to remove from Golding’s room on the day of his death. She told Beard that Dr Part had demanded that the money should he handed over to him, which she did. Beard asked her if Dr Part had told her that there was £110 missing from the bag and she burst into tears and said “yes, after he had taken it all away by himself.” Dr Lankester, clearly feeling uncomfortable about this line of questioning wondered if it had any relevance to the cause of death. Beard contended that “as this witness had charged Dr Part with ransacking the house and taking away silver watches and money, he had a right to show her conduct in the matter.” The coroner said that he had heard enough of this part of the case and dismissed the witness. The solicitor who prepared the will was then called. He described the general circumstances in which he had drawn up the will and obtained Golding’s signature. He admitted that Dr Part had given him his initial instructions; “I prepared the will in accordance with those instructions. Having done so I attended and saw the deceased, and read it over in his presence. I read the whole of it. The decreased was perfectly sensible, and spoke of knowing Dr Part for upwards of 20 years, and having great regard for him as being connected with the Artists' Fund. The will was read to deceased in the absence of Dr Part, while Dr Part had gone to get the ink for him to sign it. After I had read it deceased said it was quite right, and executed it in my presence.” As the results of the post mortem were not yet available the inquest was adjourned at this point.

When the inquest was resumed Mr Beard insisted that Frances Southgate be recalled. He then proceeded to examine her in some detail about the pills Golding had taken the day before his death. She claimed the pills were provided by Dr Part. How did she know that? Beard asked. Because Golding has told her, she said and because the pill box had Dr Part’s name on it. The pills made Golding drowsy she claimed but you did not mention this to Dr Part when he attended, Beard asked and she admitted she had not. Southgate told the inquest that “previous to the death of the deceased he never expressed a wish to be buried in his trowsers. He always wished to be buried in a Christian-like way.” Mr Beard asked her if she knew that Prince Albert had been buried in his trousers and she had to confess that she did not. Mr Beard produced letters to his client from Frances Southgate accusing him of stealing Goldings property, inveigling him into making a will in his favour and poisoning him. He also read letters from his client to Miss Southgate accusing her of stealing the £110 mentioned the previous day and of making up the accusations against him because she had been disappointed to find that Golding had only left her £100 in his will not the £700 she had expected. Mrs Todd, Golding’s landlady was recalled but had nothing much to say other than she had made cocoa for the deceased but he had been too ill to drink it. Then Professor Julian Edward Disbrowe Rodgers was called to give his evidence on the results of the post mortem examination of the deceased (The Sun 20 September 1866);

[the professor said] I have made an examination of the stomach, spleen, liver, and other portions of the intestines of the deceased. I first made a search for alkaloids, and I found a mere trace of morphia. I have made a special search for strychnine, and anything that would produce convulsions, without discovering any trace. I have also made an examination for metallic poison; and here I would say, as I am bound to speak the truth, that in the stomach I found a small quantity of arsenic. In the intestines I did not find a sufficient quantity to say it was arsenic, and in the liver none. I need not say that the greatest care had been taken in preparing for the examination. I discovered the arsenic by Reinch's test. I made a special examination of the liver, and from finding arsenic absent I came to the conclusion that no quantity of it had been swallowed that could destroy life or shorten it for any length of time, for had that been the case I must have found it in the liver.

Coroner—You are quite sure you found arsenic in the stomach?
Witness—Yes, quite sure.
Coroner—Did you look for other poisons?
Witness—Yes, and found none.
Coroner—Have you formed an opinion as to the cause of death?
Witness —Yes. There is nothing inconsistent in a man so afflicted as deceased was with bronchitis. Convulsions sometimes precede death from bronchitis. The throwing up of the arms would be an effect to get air.
Coroner—Where do you think the arsenic came from?
Witness—My impression is that there must have been an error in making of the medicine.
A Juror—Do you think the arsenic you discovered could have been contained in the cocoa the deceased took a short time before his death.
Witness—No. Had it been made in an enamelled saucepan, that might possibly account for it.

Mrs. Todd was here again recalled, and in answer to the coroner, said she did not boil the cocoa in a saucepan. She made it first into a paste in a teacup, and then poured boiling water upon it....

Dr Part, at the termination of the evidence of Professor Rodgers, was examined, and said that his great endeavour was to alleviate the sufferings of Mr. Golding, who had been during his illness very much neglected. He denied ever using any persuasion to induce the deceased to make a will in his favour.

The Jury’s verdict was death by natural causes. No charges were ever brought against either Frances Southgate or Dr James Part.

On Friday 23 July 1869 the Islington Gazette reported on another of Dr Lankester’s cases this one involving the exhumation of an 11 week old baby who had died following a vaccination of cow pox (intended to provide at least partial immunity from the deadly small pox which in the 1790’s, the time Edward Jenner discovered innoculation, was killing around 10% of the UK population every year (without a single suggestion of a lockdown)). The cause of death was given as erysipelas, a bacterial infection of the skin also known as St Anthony’s fire;

On Monday, Dr Lankester held an inquiry at the “Brookfield Arms" Tavern, Highgate New-town, relative to the death of William Emery, infant son of a ham and tongue dealer, of Great Portland-street, Marylebone, who was alleged to have died through the introduction of impure matter into the system in the operation of vaccination. The inquiry resulted from one held a few days ago by Mr. Bedford, the coroner for Westminster, in which the same allegation was made, both children being vaccinated at Dr Allen's surgery, 11, Soho-square. The verdict of the jury in the case before Mr. Bedford was one of death from natural causes, Dr Clark stating that the death was due to erysipelas, consequent on vaccination, not from the vaccine matter, but from the punctures in the arm, the vaccine not taking effect. Mr. Emery was present at that inquest, and, having lost his child from the same cause, pressed for an inquiry. His child was buried at Highgate Cemetery, but in conformity with the wishes of the father, the body was exhumed, and the present inquiry was held. Mr. Lewis senior attended on the part of the father of the deceased; and Mr Mirams represented Dr Allen.

Mr Aaron Emery, father of the deceased, identified the body as that of his son, who was vaccinated at Dr Allen’s establishment, the 31st of May, being then eleven weeks old. Four wounds were made in the right arm, one of which appeared to be very deep, and bled very much. On the 7th June the child was taken back, the four vesicles having taken, and two of them were opened, and some of the matter introduced into the arm another child. Two days after symptoms of a dangerous character set in, principally proceeding from the largest wound, whence the matter had not been taken. The inflammation spread all over the arm, which swelled to double its size. Dr Allen and his assistant attended, and the swelling decreased in the arm, but went into the body, back, legs, and scrotum. From the 9th day of June till its death on the 4th July, the child appeared be unconscious. It only dozed, and started up shrieking with agony.

 Mr. Thomas Masse y Harding, F.R.C.S., said he had been a public vaccinator for more than twelve years. He had made a post -mortem examination of the deceased, and found, notwithstanding its illness, that it was a very fine, well-nourished child. The immediate cause of death was exhaustion from erysipelas produced by the vaccination —he thought by the cow-pox virus being introduced into the wounds. He had vaccinated from 4000 to 5,000 children, and he had never had death. His brother and Dr Ballard, of Islington, had also vaccinated some thousands, and they had only had one death each. If erysipelas set after vaccination he might not know it, as parents would take their children to their own doctors. An unclean lancet or other instrument used for making the excoriations for the reception of the lymph might produce erysipelas. If matter were taken from an arm and introduced into another after the eighth day it was likely to produce erysipelas, the matter becoming deteriorated. The matter was never taken from the cow. He had vaccinated from 4,000 to 5,000 children, and it was not taken from the cow, but from arm to arm. The cow-pox was similar the small-pox.

Some discussion here ensued, in which was introduced the discovery of vaccination by Dr Jenner, and its ultimate adoption. It was shown that out of 1,600 patients admitted into the Small-pox Hospital, 1,300 had been previously vaccinated : but those who had been vaccinated received the disease (which only came once in a lifetime) in a very mild form—it was modified, and less severe in those successfully vaccinated; 30 out of every 100 were susceptible and liable to small-pox if exposed to it, but it would not be fatal. Mr. Harding (in reply  to Mr. Lewis) said he had seen the child from which deceased had been vaccinated, and it was perfectly healthy, as were also the father and mother. Dr George Allen, 11, Soho-square, said he had been a vaccinator since he was 15 years old, and had performed as many operations as 100 in a day, and he had never seen fatal case before. He believed the erysipelas was produced after vaccination, through some fault in the child. He knew nothing of the children who were vaccinated before or after Mr. Emery's child. Before he administered the matter to a child he did not inquire whence it came. The matter was not direct from the cow, and it would not deteriorate for years. He had used such matter for thirty years. Mr. Harding said Mr. Badcock, of Brighton, used supply the institutions with lymph from the cow. The jury ultimately returned a verdict of "Died from erysipelas, caused by vaccination."



  1. Some interesting find you found around Highgate, I remember seeing thouse monuments when I visited the place

  2. A very interesting read. I am distantly related to Julian Edward Disbrowe Rodgers. He was my great great great grandfather, give or take an illegitimate birth!

    1. Thanks. Your genes don't care whether your forebears were married or not; all they want is to be passed! Genealogically speaking your great great great grandparents are quite close relatives.